While winter is often associated with dwindling daylight and sub-zero temperatures, there’s a major silver lining to the season for wildlife lovers. The changing seasons bring massive flocks of migratory birds along North America’s many flyways, with ideal birding destinations spanning from the California coast to the eastern reaches of Massachusetts. For any birding aficionados out there, the following regions offer some of the finest sea duck, raptor, and shorebird sightings in all of the nation.
Space Coast, Florida
Spanning 72 miles along the idyllic eastern shore of Florida, the Space Coast is best known for its robust aeronautics and space exploration industries, but there’s no shortage of gorgeous flora and fauna just waiting to be discovered by newcomers as well. While wildlife-filled destinations range from the shores of Cocoa Beach to Manatee Sanctuary Park—a tiny coastal preserve that’s packed full of shorebirds and Florida softshell turtles—it’s tough to find a better ecotourism destination than Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. During a wildlife expedition with Canaveral Tours, visitors can spot birds ranging from the northern shoveler to the roseate spoonbill, with no shortage of armadillos and alligators to find along the way.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Cape Cod is one of the Bay State’s most popular vacation destinations during the height of summer, but there’s a treasure trove of ecotourism opportunities waiting to be discovered once the weather turns cold. One type of bird in particular—the sea duck—can be found in great numbers all throughout the peninsula, with species like the bufflehead, surf scoter, and common eider all arriving during migration season. During a trip to Provincetown, shorebirds ranging from the killdeer to the ruddy turnstone can be encountered at scenic Race Point, while Cape Cod visitors in search of passerines can pay a visit to Fort Hill to find sparrows and finches flitting through the fields.
The Magnolia State coast is renowned for its high concentration of oysters, and all of that shellfish serves as the perfect winter buffet for visiting shorebirds. Scenic coastal destinations like Waveland Beach and Pascagoula Beach Park are havens for species like royal terns, sanderlings, and even black skimmers, a fascinating bird that uses its lengthy lower beak to catch fish along the surface of the water. Further inland, the Pascagoula River Audubon Center offers passerines like the red-winged blackbird and indigo bunting, while the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is a particularly stunning destination for an afternoon hike, equipped with multiple acres of wet pine savanna set aside for the Mississippi sandhill crane.
San Francisco Bay, California
Designated a Ramsar Wetland in 2013, the San Francisco Bay plays host to more than a thousand different animal species, with no shortage of birds to discover during the depths of winter. For San Francisco residents, there’s no need to venture far from the city to find top-tier birding, with the Presidio serving as a goldmine for passerines in particular. On the eastern coast of the bay, Hayward Regional Shoreline is an ideal destination for spotting northern harriers and a wide array of owls, while Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge plays host to massive amounts of migratory birds, with 30,000 acres of wetland habitat to explore.
Lake Erie Coast, Ohio
Measuring in at several hundred miles in length, Ohio’s share of the Lake Erie coast is dotted with prime birding destinations all throughout the year. During the colder months, the Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve is a popular spot located just east of Sandusky, offering the opportunity to spot long-eared, saw-whet, and even snowy owls. Closer to the Michigan border, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is home to raptors like the northern harrier soaring high above the inland prairie, while tundra swans arrive in the thousands as they make their way across the continent. For urban birding in particular, the city of Cleveland offers the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, an 88-acre preserve that’s rife with raptors, passerines, and shorebirds.